This Mumbai-based company is making a splash in the ready-to-cook market with its sauces

Ceres Foods was launched by Deb Mukherjee, Amit Mange and Jagmandeep Singh in 2020. It offers ready-to-cook products in the Oriental and Indian cuisine categories.
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In 2013, Deb Mukherjee felt that it was now time to move away from his decade-long career as an investment banker. He had seen his father working in the hospitality industry for 40 years, which is why food business seemed a natural transition. 

He launched Ceres Hospitality in 2014, a Quick Service Restaurant (QSR) chain, and over the next five years, scaled it up to 45 outlets across Maharashtra. In 2019, Deb realised that maintaining consistency, which is paramount to scale an F&B company, was the most daunting task. 

“When you start multiplying a restaurant chain, the quality falters because every location is being run by chefs. And so, the taste changes location-wise no matter how hard you try,” Deb tells SMBStory 

Deb and his team started working on a solution that would ensure that “food can be prepared without any specific skill.” 

The real breakthrough came when the private equity fund, Bluestone Capital, invited Ceres to help them set up a cloud kitchen business in Sri Lanka. For this project, Ceres rolled out a series of ready-to-eat products such as those in the Biryani category, South Indian Chettinad, Burmese Khao Suey and more. 

When these products saw decent growth on foreign shores, Deb decided to implement the same concept in India. 

This is how Mumbai-based ready-to-cook startup Ceres Foods came into existence in 2020. Deb was also joined by co-founders Amit Mange and Jagmandeep Singh in the same year. Currently, Ceres offers 13 products in two categories -- Oriental sauces and Indian gravies.

The manufacturing is 100 percent sourced through four units located in Maharashtra and Gujarat. Last month, Ceres clocked Rs 25 lakh revenue. in the last month.

How failures gave birth to success

Ceres Foods began its journey with Rs 5.5 crore as the initial investment. However, the brand had to face an uphill task to find customers. “We rolled out products such as ready to eat gravies of Butter Chicken and Palak Paneer. But we soon realised we were competing with masala brands such as MDH or IDC Kitchen,” the co-founder says. 

With products overlapping with the big names of the industry-led Ceres to “fail very badly.” Its sales tanked.

Deb then shifted his focus onto the non-vegetarian market. According to the National Family Health Survey, 75 percent of Indians are non-vegetarian. This compelled the co-founders to take a step back and explore a niche product line in the non-vegetarian category. The company then introduced liquid masalas for dishes like Laal Maas, Mustard Fish, Nalli Nihari, and more. 

Explaining the process of cooking, Deb says, “You don't have to chop onions and add the masala separately like traditional cooking. All you have to do is put the contents of the packet in a pan, add some water and let it cook for 15 minutes.”

In the oriental category, Ceres launched the ‘Moi Soi’ sauces such as Black Bean Sauce, Manchurian Stir Fry Sauce and more. Apart from sauces, Ceres also offers ready to eat momos and chicken cutlets. 

Ceres Foods' Co-founders (L-R): Jagmandeep Singh, Deb Mukherjee and Amit Mange

Catering to different tastes

For the first few months, Ceres tried and tested its products in four cities for about three months. Today, the brand is present in 28 cities across the country. Its biggest market is Mumbai followed by Pune, Goa, Gurgaon and Kolkata. 

About 90 percent of Ceres’ business comes from online channels, including Amazon, Flipkart, and its own website, whereas 10 percent is offline through distributors.

Ceres also caters to international markets such as Sri Lanka and Saudi Arabia. Going forward, it also plans to expand to Dubai and Singapore. 

Talking about establishing a pan-India presence, Deb says, “Initially, we were not very focused on the southern market apart from Bangalore but surprisingly, some of our highest sales are coming from Chennai.” 

Deb claims that the Laal Maas Liquid Masala and the Black Bean Sauce are the highest selling products in this market.

According to the co-founder, Chennai is dominated by the local players which is why D2C (direct-to-consumer) brands want to explore this market. 

Deb says that this trend has inspired Ceres to come up with more flavours, especially designed for the south Indian market. 

“Our goal is to pick up recipes which are very original and are difficult to make at home.” A special ‘Bihari Mutton Curry,’ he says, is one of the products that is under work and will be launched in a few months. 

Ceres’ niche flavours and other products have picked steam. From selling 500 units in August 2021, it gradually scaled up to 900 units during the festival season and is expected to reach 10,000 units by this month end. Deb adds that he is also witnessing increasing demand coming from Tier II cities such as Jaipur, Nagpur, Indore, Lucknow, Jammu and more. 

The ready-to-eat market in India

The last few years have witnessed a sharp rise in ready-to-eat and frozen foods categories. 

According to a report by ResearchAndMarkets, the Indian ready-to-eat food market is projected to grow at a CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of more than 16 percent during 2018-2023 to reach $647 million by 2023. 

India saw several brands in this space such as GRUhasutram, Wakao being launched during the pandemic as well as established FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) players such as Pansari Group and Goel Group beginning to explore the frozen foods space.

Deb attributes focus on quality products as the reason for this category to grow. “For a long time Indians didn’t really trust the frozen foods category. But today, a lot of brands are coming up with innovative products,” he says, adding that gone are the days when Indians were extra sensitive about price. 

“Today, they are ready to pay 20 or 30 percent more if you offer them value-added and quality-driven products,” he adds. 

Ceres’ target customers are aged between 25-45 years. 

“I feel in the next 10 years, this can be a much much bigger category than any of these other categories put together,” the co-founder says.

Ceres also plans to reach 100,000 units being sold every month in the next six months and 300,000 units in the next 12-18 months. Deb is also looking to raise funds in the coming times to ramp up its manufacturing capabilities. 

Edited by Affirunisa Kankudti

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